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Seven Inspirational Documentaries

In the very recent past, documentary has changed dramatically as a genre, in popularity and format. It’s not the first time the genre has shifted, there have been innovations in it since even before Nanook of the North started playing with narrative. While Tiger King and other Netflix successes have attracted large audiences, it’s hard to argue that they fall off the radar rather quickly. Unless you’re one of the few campaigning for Joe Exotic’s immediate release from prison, chances are you’re calling for no more follow-up.  

In a way, they’ve become the new office watercooler conversation, someone once reserved for whatever popular sitcom was airing or – more appropriately – Dateline NBC. They’re doubtless thoroughly entertaining diversions when they last (surely our own staff is guilty of indulging), they don’t exactly represent the scope of what the genre can do. In the past, it’s gotten people off death row

Documentary film can not only capture and preserve the finest achievements in human history, but once in a while it can capture the human spirit, too. Here are some more recent inspirational documentaries. 

Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011)

David Gelb’s documentary focuses on Sukiyabashi Jiro, the proprietor of a ten-seat, sushi-only restaurant in the Tokyo subway station. Jiro’s only dream was to be the best sushi chef in the world. 85 at the time of filming, Jiro had already been awarded a Michelin three-star rating, and the sushi cost, at a minimum, $270 US. 

What Jiro does so well is translate the passion and obsession that seems to be mandatory for any lifelong pursuit. The dedication to the craft, the knowledge of the life of the seafood before it’s prepared is endearing to watch, and it’s easy to be reminded of the things about which you’re passionate. It’s a food documentary that may even win over people who don’t care for the main course. 

Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet (2012)

Plenty of rock and roll documentaries emphasize the sex and drugs and hard living 

 that comes with the lifestyle. The most common cliche about rock stars is that they don’t live past 27 (Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin all died at that age).  At last, a music film that focuses on the positives. Jason Becker wasn’t supposed to live very long, carrying a diagnosis of Lou Gehrig’s disease. Drafted into The David Lee Roth Band at 19, he was soon informed that he had three to five years to live.

Miraculously and through the tireless, devoted work of his caregivers, Jason Becker is still alive. Not Dead Yet may track his physical decline, but Becker never stopped writing music, even after his condition stole his ability to move and speak. The music that was inside of Becker seems to keep him alive, as do a fantastic team of healthcare workers. It’s an unlikely celebration of both passions. 

Good Fortune (2016)

Outside of conversations on Twitter about how delicious they might taste, you don’t hear many good things about Billionaires these days.  In part, that’s because we just don’t have Billionaires like John Paul DeJoria anymore, who worked a number of low-paying gigs and got fired from his first job at Redken laboratories before starting John Paul Mitchell Systems with hairdresser Paul Mitchell. Dejoria’s success in business is only half as impressive as his philanthropic work, primarily focused on food sustainability and healthy eating. Good Fortune depicts the struggle of balancing the two, but more importantly focuses on what it really means to be a philanthropist. Dejoria’s money may be something to gawk at, but Good Fortune lets you know what’s in his heart. 

Free Solo (2018)

Free Solo is a documentary that inspires even those who suffer anxiety at the thought of dizzying heights. As nerve-wracking as it can be to watch Alex Honnold free climb cliff faces without the aid of equipment, it’s absolutely breathtaking. John Woo’s bigger-than-life free climb opening to Mission: Impossible 2 pales in comparison.

Solo presents a Schrodinger’s cat situation. Honnold doesn’t climb for an audience – he’s not in it for the likes on Instagram – so he is uneasy on camera, which may be dangerous. Solo shows the intense physical and personal training Honnold puts himself on before each climb. The obvious question is why? The answer is a mix of eccentricity, a love of the outdoors and something in the human spirit that hasn’t quite been tamed.

My Octopus Teacher (2020)

Humanity has long been fascinated with the octopus. Their alien features and unusual intelligence baffle and intrigue. Like most sea life, normal people don’t typically encounter them. Craig Foster didn’t see many until he started diving off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa, where the water is a little colder. There, he befriended one for over a year and filmed his encounters.

My Octopus Teacher documents one of the most unlikely friendships ever told, and it’s as heartwarming as it is educational.  We learn a lot about the female octopus, as she starts to have to protect herself from predatory pyjama sharks. Apart from some fascinating lessons about the creature’s habits, though, Teacher is more about how bonds can be formed, even when nature separates us most severely.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018)

You’ll tell yourself you won’t cry. Especially now, but within ten minutes of Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, anyone who grew up with even only snippets of clips from Mr. Rogers Neighbourhood will involuntarily fall apart. For 31 seasons, Fred Rogers welcomed children and adults into his neighbourhood, full of low-budget whimsy, teaching invaluable lessons with the grace and munificence every parent desires.

In an era that’s experienced a #METOO movement, a pandemic, heated political arguments and a general widespread, completely unjustified paranoia about celebrities, it’s wonderfully refreshing to watch a story of a man who genuinely loved children and only sought to encourage their curiosity. Mr. Rogers was a good man, and he’ll make you want to be one, too. 

Steadfast: The Messenger and the Message

Political documentaries often serve to raise awareness about a particular social cause, not dissimilar to how the subject of Steadfast governed. Jean Augustine, the first black woman to be elected to Canadian Parliament in 1993, started making progress almost immediately. Within two years, she put forth the motion for February to be officially recognized as Black History Month.  She was later the first black Canadian woman appointed to federal office when she was appointed Secretary of State.

The Grenada-born politician’s life story is documented in the new documentary — Steadfast from director Ali Umair, who lovingly captures her life of service, collaboration and civic engagement. Augustine’s immigrant experience is one of the best examples of  what someone can accomplish. In an age where nearly half of Canada has lost trust in its government, there’s nothing more inspiring than celebrating one of its most dedicated employees. 

Kenny Hedges | Contributing Writer

Summer 2024

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